Moving Beyond Neighborhood: Activity Spaces and Ecological Networks As Contexts for Youth Development

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Christopher R. Browning and Brian Soller, Moving Beyond Neighborhood: Activity Spaces and Ecological Networks As Contexts for Youth Development, A Journal of Policy Development and Research , Volume 16, Number 1 (2014),


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Many scholars, policy analysts, and practitioners agree that neighborhoods are important contexts for urban youth. Yet, despite decades of research, our knowledge of why and how neighborhoods influence the day-to-day lives of youth is still emerging. Theories about neighborhood effects largely assume that neighborhoods operate to influence youth through exposure-based mechanisms. Extant theoretical approaches, however, have neglected the processes by which neighborhood socioeconomic contexts influence the routine spatial exposures—or activity spaces—of urban residents. In this article, we argue that exposure to organizations, institutions, and other settings that characterize individual activity spaces is a key mechanism through which neighborhoods influence youth outcomes. Moreover, we hypothesize that aggregate patterns of shared local exposure—captured by the concept of ecological networks—are influenced by neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics and are independently consequential for neighborhood youth. Neighborhoods in which residents intersect in space more extensively as a result of routine conventional activities will exhibit higher levels of social capital relevant to youth well-being, including (1) familiarity, (2) beneficial (weak) social ties, (3) trust, (4) shared expectations for pro-social youth behavior (collective efficacy), and (5) the capacity for consistent monitoring of public space. We then consider the implications of ecological networks for understanding the complexities of contextual exposure. We specifically discuss the role of embeddedness in ecological communities—that is, clusters of actors and locations that intersect at higher rates—for understanding contextual influences that are inadequately captured by geographically defined neighborhoods. We conclude with an overview of new approaches to data collection that incorporate insights from an activity-space and ecological-network perspective on neighborhood and contextual influences on youth. Our approach offers (1) a new theoretical approach to understanding the links between neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics and youth-relevant dimensions of neighborhood social capital; (2) a basis for conceptualizing contextual influences that vary within, or extend beyond, traditionally understood geographic neighborhoods; and (3) a suite of methodological tools and resources to address the mechanisms of contextual influence more precisely. Research into the causes and consequences of urban neighborhood routine activity structures will illuminate the social processes accounting for compromised youth outcomes in disadvantaged neighborhoods and enhance the capacity for effective youth-oriented interventions.